To integrate or not to integrate migrant students in mainstream classes?

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Authors: Marc Sarazin, Anna Lund and Didem Oral


Is that the question?

National and local policies can have an enormous impact on the integration of young people from migrant backgrounds. This is especially true in education, where policy-makers need to decide how migrant students are integrated physically and socially in schools. Should migrant students be put directly into mainstream classes (alongside their non-migrant peers), as they are in parts of Scotland and Sweden? Or should they be educated for a period of time in separate classrooms, as they are in Finland and in some Swedish schools?

There are intense debates on which of these two approaches is most inclusive for migrant students, and research has found merit and challenges in both. By definition, integrating migrant students in mainstream classrooms lessens physical segregation between migrant and non-migrant students. This can potentially help migrant students learn the language of instruction (Dollmann & Rudolphi, 2020). However, it can also create a ‘sink or swim’ educational experience for these students, leading to their ‘exclusion through inclusion’ (Tajic & Bunar, 2020). Meanwhile, the ‘separate classroom’ approach can help migrant students feel safe in school and access support from students who have gone through similar experiences, or from staff who are trained in responding to their needs. However, students in those classes can be exposed to fewer subjects and subject-specialist teachers than students in mainstream classes, and they can also feel as if they are not ‘like everyone else’ (Nilsson & Axelsson, 2013).

What about teachers’ work?

Debates on how to integrate students from migrant backgrounds are thus (rightly) centred on pupils’ experiences. But they can neglect a crucial dimension of educational policies: how they affect teachers’ work. This is critical, as what teachers do is one of the single most important factors shaping students’ experiences and success in school (Hattie, 2008). Teachers’ work is also central in the debate on mainstream provision vs. introductory classrooms for migrant students. Mainstream provision requires tight co-ordination between subject matter experts and those who can address migrant students’ particular needs in class (e.g. language assistants). Meanwhile, the introductory model demands that teachers jointly and carefully manage migrant students’ transitions from introductory to mainstream classes.

In the TEAMS project, we focus on one specific aspect of teachers’ work—collaboration—and how it relates to migrant students’ inclusion. We’re guided by research indicating that inclusive teaching practices tend to follow certain principles (Florian et al., 2017; Florian & Black‐Hawkins, 2011). According to these principles, student diversity is a normal part of schooling, and professional challenges are opportunities for teachers to learn and improve their practice. Furthermore, teachers should not only take responsibility for all students’ learning, but collaboration is an essential way of doing just that. Collaboration is not without its own challenges, however. For it to be effective, it needs to enhance teachers’ agency instead of just being another demand on practitioners’ limited time. And for this to happen, teachers need to be aware of their colleagues’ expertise and ability to help, and existing structures need to enable teachers to reach out to these co-workers, as some of our research is starting to tell us.

The question above could then be reformulated as: how do different models for integrating migrant students affect how teachers collaborate?

Teacher collaboration and models of integration

Although we’re still investigating this question, social network results from our Swedish and Scottish schools suggest that both models can have surprisingly convergent effects on teacher collaboration. Thus, in a Swedish school that has adopted an introductory classroom model, one staff member in particular was very often sought after by colleagues for help in supporting migrant students. Almost 60% of survey respondents said that they had reached out to the school’s ‘Swedish as a Second Language’ (SSL) teacher, one of the main liaisons with newly arrived migrant students in the school. According to data from our TRAC log, many colleagues reached out to her because of her role: because she was seen as ‘responsible’ for working with these students. Other staff who were also more often sought after were those who provided pastoral and learning support to students in general.

Are these trends simply due to the school’s integration model? Data from our Scottish schools — where the mainstream provision model prevails — would suggest a more complex picture. In one school, collaboration for supporting migrant students happened much as it did in the Swedish school: one staff member, whose role similarly focused on students who had English as an additional language, was sought after far more often than anyone else. As in the Swedish school, other staff who collaborated more often were those involved in pastoral support or in helping students with learning needs.

Lessons going forward

Does it matter that particular individuals collaborated far more often to support migrant students in both schools, especially when their roles clearly involved supporting these students? In some ways, it is perfectly appropriate. The two teachers mentioned above were highly committed to their roles. They reported collaborations that enabled them to support colleagues, and to respond quickly and effectively to migrant students’ needs. However, it can also mean that teachers without designated roles, but who are equally able and committed to supporting migrant students, do not collaborate nearly as often for this purpose. Their expertise — for example linked to their own experiences of migration — is less visible, and they may not have dedicated time to help colleagues outside of their immediate subject area. As a result, staff who are designated for supporting migrant students can end up with very heavy workloads, while the full potential of collaboration — of enhancing practitioners’ ability to take responsibility for all students’ learning — remains unrealised.

In the end, it would seem that, when it comes to collaboration, the integration model itself matters less than how it is implemented (Nilsson & Axelsson, 2013). So how can schools best include migrant students through collaboration? For one, they could encourage structured opportunities for staff to share their expertise, so colleagues know they can help. Leaders could foster inclusive cultures, where staff members’ relevant experiences and skills (e.g. linked to their migration backgrounds) are recognised, and staff feel at ease sharing them with colleagues. And finally, schools could encourage the sharing of information about migrant students’ needs, for instance through management information systems and technological solutions, to help all staff take responsibility for these students’ education. These solutions, among others, could enable collaborations that include diverse learners in general — not just migrant students.


Dollmann, J., & Rudolphi, F. (2020). Classroom composition and language skills: the role of school class and friend characteristics. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 41, 1200–1217.

Florian, L., & Black‐Hawkins, K. (2011). Exploring inclusive pedagogy. British Educational Research Journal, 37, 813–828.

Florian, L., Black-Hawkins, K., & Rouse, M. (2017). Achievement and inclusion in schools. Routledge, London.

Hattie, J., (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge, London.

Nilsson, J., & Axelsson, M. (2013). ‘Welcome to Sweden’: Newly arrived students’ experiences of pedagogical and social provision in introductory and regular classes. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 6, 137–164.

Tajic, D., & Bunar, N. (2020). Do both ‘get it right’? Inclusion of newly arrived migrant students in Swedish primary schools. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1–15.